Those of us who love Carlene Carter have been waiting patiently for her.
We’ve been waiting for her to emerge from more than a decade out of the spotlight, a time during which she lost several loved ones and battled substance abuse.
Our patience has been rewarded.
In 2006, Carter put her toe back in the water, recording “Stronger,” an album of new material. Essentially a demo, it was produced by her brother, John Carter Cash. At the time, Carter had no record deal, so she sold it only online and at her occasional shows. I heard “Stronger” last year, and it was delightful.
Last year, Carter signed with Yep Roc Records, which last week released “Stronger.”
However, it’s not the “Stronger” I heard last year. They’re the same tunes, with a slightly different tracking order, but with new arrangements and far more polished. The new “Stronger” is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s produced by John McFee (formerly of the Doobie Brothers), who also played most of the instruments.
Brad DeMeulenaere, who edits an excellent Web site on Carter’s behalf, explains the new version of “Stronger” this way: “Carlene has said she wanted it to have more punch.” It certainly does.
If you are at all familiar with the arc of Carter’s career, you know we’ve seen Carter as a sassy rocker with then-husband Nick Lowe in the late ’70s and early ’80s and Carter as a video-friendly blonde pixie doing country-tinged pop in the ’90s.
Now, with “Stronger,” we have Carter as earthy mom, a spirited voice that nonetheless has been around the block a few times.
“Stronger” has much in common with Carter’s early-’90s work, a blend of traditional country and alt-country infused with rock and pop sensibilities. Resist the impulse to dismiss it as twang. It ain’t.
Listen to “Break My Little Heart in Two” and you think it might just break into 1990’s “I Fell in Love.” Likewise, you can hear echoes of 1993’s “Sweet Meant to Be” and 1995’s “Love Like This” in “Light of Your Love.” Sure, they’re familiar, yet Carter’s sound has matured, moved forward.
Carter also revisits “I’m So Cool,” a rave-up rocker she did first on “Musical Shapes,” her classic 1980 album. It’s interesting to listen to the evolution of her performances.
In 1980, Carter, backed by Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, sounded the sass of youth. The 2006 demo was more of a straight-ahead rocker, with Carter’s lower, huskier voice of experience. On the new version, Carter is feisty as always — kissing us off mid-song with “Ohhh, eat your heart out” — but McFee’s choice of vocoderish backing vocals and a synth-filled finish is curious. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it’s the only miss among a bunch of solid tunes.
The signature tune of “Stronger” is its distinctive title track, the last cut on the CD. The song and its haunting refrain — “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger/What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger/I’ll hold on a little longer/What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” — speaks to the loss of her beloved younger sister, Rosey Nix Adams, in 2003.
Carlene Carter is back. Whether saucy or serious, she still has plenty to say.
Now if we can only get her to come play in Green Bay.
“I’m So Cool,” Carlene Carter, “Stronger” demo, 2006. No longer available.
“Light of Your Love,” Carlene Carter, “Stronger,” 2008. (Not plugging it, but just FYI: If you follow this link instead of shopping at the place I usually link to, you’ll get the album digitally so you can listen right away while waiting for your CD — plus you’ll get a bonus track not on the CD.)